Alex Keller and Sean O'Neill: Kruos
Elevator Bath

Colin Andrew Sheffield and James Eck Rippie: Essential Anatomies
Elevator Bath

Two beautifully presented vinyl editions from Elevator Bath, the first a double-LP set by James Eck Rippie and the label's founder Colin Andrew Sheffield and the second a single-LP collaboration between Alex Keller and Sean O'Neill. The Austin, Texas-based imprint has been issuing high-quality experimental music since 1998, and these two sets uphold the tradition in fine manner.

Sheffield (sampler) and Rippie (turntables) have been acquainted for a quarter century and thus share a deep connection when they reunite. They first played together in Dallas in 2000 and issued the album Variations a year later, but subsequent relocations to cities thousands of miles apart put their joint production work on hold until 2015, when both found themselves living in Austin and ready to resume their creative partnership.

Issued in an edition of 293 copies and enhanced by Eugenia Loli's eye-catching collages, Essential Anatomies presents four untitled sides that first appeared on limited edition cassettes. Don't be misled by the presence of turntables, which for many automatically call to mind images of scratching DJs and the like. In this context, the duo manipulate their vinyl sources to create long-form, ever-evolving soundscapes rich in atmosphere and texture. And though they are improvisations, they don't lack for structure, even if their form becomes clearer upon repeated listenings. Each side advances with a logical flow that's analogically similar to a stream of consciousness, though one bereft of linguistic content. Steely industrial timbres and ripples give way to blustery episodes, with the duo sometimes operating a bit like Tangerine Dream's members during the group's early improvisations.

Ten minutes into the first side, a bleating, horn-like creature emerges that can't help but call Jon Hassell to mind for those familiar with his distinctive horn sound. During the second, layers of treated guitar and piano pulsate like evanescent star clusters, the music mutating rapidly much like the experience one might have aboard a space shuttle as it encounters an asteroid field. Things take a more aggressive, even nightmarish turn on side three when percussion effects and noise treatments arise alongside clangorous convulsions, but quieter passages occur, too. Side four witnesses a deep plunderphonic plunge, with this time the queasy cinematic blend of string stabs, guitar flickers, organ shimmer, and surface crackle suitably mind-melting.

Whatever the source recordings used, they're rendered wholly unrecognizable by the sound-sculpting treatments Sheffield and Rippie impose on them; further to that, instruments also take on a largely abstract character in their hands. Occasional moments of wooziness remind us of the involvement of turntables, but such effects are always thoughtfully integrated into the composition as a whole. Don't be daunted by the prospect of four sides of experimental improvisations as Essential Anatomies is never anything less than engrossing, not to mention more listenable than recordings of its genre type sometimes are.

A distillation of the duo's live performances, Kruos is the debut release from sound designer Alex Keller and multi-media artist Sean O'Neill as a duo. Both are currently based in Austin, Texas and bring backgrounds in phonography (Keller) and light-and-sound installation work (O'Neill) to the joint project. They've been operating together since 2015, producing performances and installation pieces using field recordings and magnetic oscillators, among other things. Described by the label as a “bracing study of an invisible landscape,” Kruos presents its two side-long parts on a gorgeous slab of clear vinyl made available in an edition of 250 copies.

Field recordings figure heavily, so much that Kruos started out as an exercise in field recordings manipulations. The title subtly alludes to them in being an ancient Greek word meaning frozen or frost, the idea being that field recordings too once captured are frozen in time. As prominent as they are, they're not the whole story: homemade electromagnetic oscillators and vintage telecom test equipment stitch the various parts together to form gripping audioscapes that evolve at a carefully calibrated pace over the course of their eighteen-minute runs.

“Kruos I” initiates its trek with a low-pitched, reverberating hum that's soon augmented by the clatter of a warehouse-based field recording, the respective elements bleeding together to form unsettling industrial convulsions of an increasingly abstract kind. At the nine-minute mark, the noise level drops, exposing in its wake sounds that suggest an engine's quiet roar and the creak of a boat rubbing against a dock. Intensifying incrementally alongside that agitated rumble is a siren-like drone that lends the piece a ‘musical' dimension that strikingly expands its sound character. Field recordings play perhaps an even bigger part in the second piece, with sounds taken from a university power plant and lake settings combined with the hum of the electromagnetic oscillator to fashion a soundscape as commanding of one's attention as the first. During its opening minutes, a stream of textural haze merges with subterranean pulsations until oscillator percolations of various kinds dominate the sound-field. After having spent much of the time within urban settings, it's refreshing to breathe in the nature symphony produced by insects and birds, even if the sound field grows increasingly dense as the minutes pass.

August 2017